Last week, Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah was busy reaching out to miffed National Democratic Alliance (NDA) partners — the first time he was doing so since the Telugu Desam Party quit the alliance in March and the Shiv Sena announced in its national convention resolution that it would fight the 2019 general elections alone.
Mr. Shah met Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray on June 6, and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leader Parkash Singh Badal the following day. The first initiative was an effort to calm tempers, and the second a belated attempt to attend to grouses long articulated. With Opposition parties coming together to take on the BJP in 2019, the outreach is seen as a realisation in the BJP that the NDA needs to be held together closer.
Alliances are held together by the delicate threads of needs, complementarity of vote bases and, often, a common political rival who needs to be defeated. The NDA has been held together by all these factors. However, with the BJP seeing a remarkable expansion in its organisational and electoral base — a part of which has come at the expense of its own allies, some as a result of forming newer and more expedient alliances and recruiting disgruntled leaders in the Opposition — equations were recalibrated, not always happily.
The BJP’s electoral wins since 2014 under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mr. Shah has made the party ambitious, but also, according to some, arrogant in its conduct with its allies, who are no longer as central to the running of the government at the Centre as they were during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s prime ministership. This is reflected in allies holding fewer ministries and less important portfolios. Gubernatorial positions promised before the results to the allies have not been delivered either.
The logic of numerical majority is often used to explain the declining influence of allies. However, with the Opposition parties coming together against the NDA, the BJP needs to acknowledge that some of its alliances have been force multipliers, with an importance quite apart from just providing numerical strength.
The BJP’s alliance with the Shiv Sena has been the most organic as the Sena is the only other political party apart from the BJP to aggressively espouse the Hindutva cause. The Mahayuthi, or grand alliance that the BJP and the Shiv Sena forged in Maharashtra, enabled the two parties to form a government in the State more than 20 years ago. Faced with the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance, the Shiv Sena allied with the BJP on ideological grounds as well as realpolitik. Now the Sena is facing a shrinking support base in Maharashtra, brought on by its own ally, an existential problem that manifests in bitter exchanges between the two.
With the SAD, the BJP forged a more social alliance. With the SAD ingrained in Sikh politics and the BJP holding the Hindutva cause dear, both have desisted from toeing any hardline position on religious issues in Punjab. Again, the internal imperatives of the BJP and the SAD notwithstanding, the two parties have stuck together as the gains from the alliance are far greater than just electoral. After the militancy years in Punjab, the alliance is seen to bind the two major communities in the State.
When the Ram Vilas Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party crossed over from the United Progressive Alliance to the NDA just before the 2014 polls, the BJP rejoiced. Mr. Paswan’s electoral presence was limited to fighting seven Lok Sabha seats in Bihar, but his representation of Dalit identity issues was important for the BJP. In fact, it was as important, some said, as the crossing over of the late Congress leader Jagjivan Ram and the Congress for Democracy that he had carved out of the Congress in 1977 to the Janata Party. It gave the non-Congress Opposition legitimacy in representing the most oppressed sections of society, who had till then been with the Congress. The BJP too anticipated that Mr. Paswan’s defection would cause the party to be mainstreamed among the Dalits.
In its treatment of its allies, the BJP would be wise to take heed of Mr. Shah’s response when asked about the efficacy of accommodating turncoats. He said it didn’t matter what the turncoats added to the BJP; what was important was that their switch diminished the ranks of the Opposition.
Some alliances may have outlived their utility; there may have been bad blood between partners. But for now, it is not good politics for the BJP to let go of its friends. To face an Opposition that is determined to come together just to defeat the BJP, it would be in the BJP’s own interest to ensure a kinder and gentler NDA.